Sunday's edition of the annual Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey is far from the biggest field ever for the race - just six horses entered - but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. We have the top three finishers in the Kentucky Derby - one of whom went on to win the Preakness - and a very promising horse from a guy who basically owns this race. And then there is some local flavor to round it all out.
It's nothing new for this race to draw big names. Last year it was the first post-Triple Crown start for American Pharaoh. He went on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic as did the previous year's winner, and American Pharoah's stablemate, Bayern. In the last decade greats like Big Brown, Rachel Alexandra and Lookin at Lucky have won the race as well. This race matters.
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So, who will join the impressive list of winners this year? Let's take a look (Odds listed are track morning line odds):
Nyquist (6/5): This horse was unbeaten when he won the Kentucky Derby, and Triple Crown talk was really gaining steam - until he was a total non-factor in the Preakness. He just didn't fire at all. He was initially aimed at the Belmont, but issues with his blood profile after the race forced his owners to give him some rest to recover. He's come back solidly since and has been working well. Most of that work was done in the milder environs of California, but he has worked at Monmouth, so he should be fine in the heat. We know he can beat Exaggerator because he has done it several times.
His connections say he looks better than ever after his break, but I long ago quit believing anything Doug O'Neill says. He's obviously a legitimate horse, and is the deserving favorite. The price is low enough here, though - and likely to go lower - that I will be looking elsewhere for a winner.
Exaggerator (5/2): He ran a nice race in the Derby, finishing a solid second. He was spectacular in the Preakness. In the Belmont, though, he was just lousy. He never fired.
Now, leading up to this one, we have some odd drama. He was originally aimed for Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes - presumably so he could get a race in at Saratoga before the Travers. In a recent work at Saratoga, though, he was so underwhelming that he was removed from consideration for that race. It seemed, then, that he was going to be rested for the late summer or fall. But then his connections entered him here. Surprising. And maybe a little desperate. That doesn't inspire confidence, and I will look elsewhere - with one possible exception. The forecast tells us that the chance of rain is high on Sunday. If it does come and the track is sloppy then the chances of this horse are elevated. By now we know without question that he is a better horse on an off track.
American Freedom (3/1): Bob Baffert has won this race eight times, including the last two and five of the last six, It's not like it's a home-field advantage, either - he's based in California. He knows this race better than anyone. That's a big asset for this horse. This horse was disappointing on the Derby undercard but came back to win nicely on the Preakness undercard and again in the Iowa Derby on July 1. He's a freakishly-talented horse who is coming into his own, and he is training very well right now. He's my choice.
Gun Runner (4/1): Lost in the excitement of this field is a very good horse in Gun Runner. He won the Louisiana Derby and then was a solid third in the Kentucky Derby. He's training very well, and he's a versatile horse who should be able to adapt to different pace scenarios. He's well ridden by Florent Geroux, too.
I think the public will forget about him - at least in relative terms - and the price will work well. I'm very tempted to use him with American Freedom in an exotic.
Awesome Slew (15/1): This is a locally-based horse that was third in a lower-level stakes at Monmouth last time out in June. Don't let his name fool you - this is no Awesome Again or Seattle Slew. I don't have high hopes for him.
Sunny Ridge (20/1): This is not only a local horse. We basically never see this at the elite levels of racing, but he's also a New Jersey bred. He won a Grade III stakes long ago, but he hasn't run since finishing fourth in the Gotham Stakes, an early Kentucky Derby prep at Aqueduct, back in early March. That's a whole lot of rust to knock off, and that's tough to do in a race with four horses as good as this.
These last two horses are in the field for one big reason alone - the fifth-place payout on a $1 million purse is a pretty nice chunk of change when you don't have to travel far to get to the race, and they might get lucky and get a little bigger piece of the pie. They aren't winning, though.
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